Book review: Book of Prayers for the nonbeliever by Dibyajyoti Sarma

Reviewed by Paresh Tiwari

book of prayers front and back

Title: Book of Prayers for the nonbeliever
Author: Dibyajyoti Sarma
Publisher: Red River (2018)
Pages: 128 (Paperback)
Price: INR 400

To read Dibyajyoti Sarma’s, Book of Prayers, is to see — in one’s own lifetime — the birth of a modern mongrel mythology, rendered skilfully on every page. Dibyajyoti’s poetry deftly fuses together bits from Mahabharata, ancient Assamese lore, and his own story. The terrain is one of love, loss and longing, and that in itself isn’t something new or particularly unique. What, however is, is his voice. Dibyajyoti’s poems are travellers. Brimming with symbolist images, the poems move deftly from deeply personal experiences to mysticism and fables, relentless in their pursuit of the self.

Dibyajyoti opens the book with a warning where he candidly owns the reader, when he says – this book is about you, and me. In this one sentence, so seemingly innocent, he establishes a tone of confession – almost as if he and the reader are lovers – and it is this tone of confession that roots the book in a pursuit of truth. With this one line, which isn’t even a poem but a precursor relegated to a page before you dig your teeth into his work, he joins the pantheon of Walt Whitman, striking an intimate relationship with his reader. And we gladly hold his hand.

Book of Prayers is divided into five sections, the first four named after an element each and the last titled ‘An Unfinished Yantra for an Unnamed Personal God’. In each of these sections, Dibyajyoti shines a light on humanity, in all its messy, heartbreaking, soaring glory. He gets down into the soil of his roots, digging with his bare hands. His poetry deftly navigates the history of an entire community, touching briefly yet deeply, myriad subjects and themes – love, lust, longing, pain, memories, to name but a few. And he juxtaposes them with mythology known and unexplored, which reminds us that the universality of human emotion is not even a factor of time, and in this timeless saga, life germinates over the pages one ink blossom at a time.

His poems strengthen my belief that the best poetry is nearly always an endeavour of unravelling, a way of negotiating the narrow roads from the unknown to the known. That good poetry looks at the megalographic from the lens of the rhopographic.

He starts the book, like a prophet and immediately slides into a question:

Out of nothing comes nothing,
‘Were they created by nothing?
Or, were they themselves the creator?’

His hand guides us to ponder the creation of the universe and, more importantly, our weak selves. The opening few poems serve as the canvas on which he, with the deft strokes of sumi-e brush reveals truths that we often bury in a dark corner of our unconscious.

Sample this:

The flowers that bloom on our hills are red,
Like the setting sun
Like my grandfather’s patterned loincloth,
Like my mother’s mournful eyes now empty of tears
Like my brother’s bullet-ridden shirt,
Like blood, our blood, which we spill indiscriminately.

— We pick flowers

The way the poem moves from a hill covered in red flowers and paints them against the backdrop of personal loss, and then suddenly like the slash of kitchen knife to the brutality that has been the truth for the mountains. Leaving us numb, exposed, and hurt. His images are sharp, and they cut deep.

Dibyajyoti has an eye for fables. He makes the air visible, shapes them into djinns who abandon the city, the city whose rattling bones and dreams of power leave behind a diminished sky. For the sake of the poetic truth, he may have at times blurred the lines between the absolute and the relative, and in doing so, he whispers in our ear an alternate truth. And I must say that I prefer the latter, a great deal.

Some of the sweetest songs of humanity are those of love and longing and loss. Dibyajyoti’s poetry takes it a step further and sings of the losses felt by the ‘rag that cleans the floor’, the longing of ‘dry ink’ and the love doled out in generous helpings by boats, and roots, and rain, and the waning moon.

I too dream,
not like lovers, giddy, exhaustive daydreams,
not like ambitious fathers,
not like alley cats dreaming of fish,
not like highway truck drivers dreaming of beds.
I dream like rivers do, of things lost, irretrievable,
I dream of the past,
of history of time incalculable –
these days, I mostly dream of
dead turtles and crocodiles.

— We nurture

 Dibyajyoti’s is a potent voice, and, in this book, he is at his cerebral best. Not only does his work look all around us, but also within. Reading his poems, one can easily discern the workings of an enquiring mind, on a flight. He leaps from intellectual experimentation to works of profound emotional intensity. In fact, if there was one criticism for his work, it could be that this book requires your undivided attention. And we all know how difficult that is in a world of instant gratification.

I also cannot help but marvel at how time has been used both as a metaphor and a cornerstone in many of the poems.

At 19, I decided I would kill myself at 40. I was young. Life looked enormously long. Now at 37, I’ve accepted the unapologetic inevitability of death. I hear Time’s Winged Chariot hurrying near. I notice the long shadow of the Grim Reaper in the dark. I’m ready. I warm’d both hands before the fire of Life. It sinks; and I am ready to depart.

— We wait for the stranger

If this book was just a collection of great poetry, I would still have recommended it as the book to curl up with and give a place of love and distinction in your personal library. The book, however, goes further. Each page of the Book of Prayers is peppered with forgotten artworks picked from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and together, the poems and the artwork, elevates the book into something of a marvel.

Red River, as an independent publishing house, separates itself from the corporate publishers by churning out book after book – ballads of love to art, craft and visual delight of poetry. And Book of Prayers is a shining example of the same.



Poet, artist and editor, Paresh Tiwari has been widely published, especially in the sub-genre of Japanese poetry. A Pushcart Prize nominee, he has published two widely acclaimed collections of poetry. Raindrops chasing Raindrops, his latest collection of hybrid poems has found an honourable mention at the ‘Touchstone Distinguished Book Awards’ – 2017.

He is the resident cartoonist for Cattails, a journal by United haiku and tanka society, USA and the serving haibun editor of the online literary magazine Narrow Road, a tri-annual publication.

Paresh has been invited to read his works at various literature festivals including the Goa Art and Lit Fest – 2016 and has conducted haiku and haibun workshops at Arcs of a Circle, Mumbai, Hyderabad International Literature Festival, SIES College, and the British Council Library, Mumbai.

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